Tentpole significantly upped international screen count vs. previous pic

Of the dozen movies that have cracked the billion-dollar barrier worldwide, only one — 2008′s Batman sequel “The Dark Knight” — has done so by earning more Stateside than overseas.

Intense interest at home, or indifference abroad? The question is a crucial one as Warner Bros. preps for a massive international rollout of “The Dark Knight Rises” on 15,000 screens starting July 20.

Securing a strong Batpic bow in the likes of Barcelona, Brussels and Bangkok is a key challenge for the studio with this final installment in Christopher Nolan’s hero trilogy. For a sense of scale, the new pic’s global screen count is nearly 4,000 more than that of “The Dark Knight” — which grossed $1 billion worldwide four years ago on the back of a $531 million domestic and $469 million foreign cume without the benefit of a 3D price boost.

The 15,000 screens for “Dark Knight Rises” is not the widest international rollout ever — Par’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” each hit around 20,000 venues — but racheting up the number of locations by more than a third underscores Warner’s confidence in its efforts on behalf of the latest Batman pic.

“Dark Knight Rises” will be rolling out in 17 markets day and date with the U.S., including the U.K. and Australia, and another 38 markets the following weekend. The last major market to open will be Italy, on Aug. 29. That’s a pattern similar to that for “The Dark Knight,” which launched in 21 markets day and date, followed by 31 more the second weekend. China, which declined to allow “The Dark Knight,” is expected to accept Nolan’s latest.

In the billion-dollar club, “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” took in 54% of its total gross internationally, and “The Avengers” has taken in 58% internationally to date, while the other nine films all grossed at least 60% of their total outside the U.S.

“The Dark Knight” carries another odd distinction: It’s fourth on the domestic list of top-grossing films and 35th on the international list — probably the widest disparity among franchise titles. There are a number of reasons why, but fundamentally the Batman character and iconography aren’t anywhere near as resonant overseas as they are in the U.S.; for that reason, it’s unlikely the lastest film will come anywhere near the $840 million that Marvel’s “The Avengers” has taken outside the U.S.

“It really is going to be a dominant film internationally, but I don’t know that it will have quite the same appeal as ‘The Avengers’ for everyone from 8 to 80,” one exec at a rival studio said.

Foreign business for “The Dark Knight Rises” is expected to make major gains vs. the previous installment.

Warner Bros. has done extensive groundwork worldwide to make the film into a must-see worldwide event, making a point to touts the pic’s international cast: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman.

Warners first began promoting “TDKR” on a worldwide basis via the May 2011 launch of the film’s official website, leading to the reveal of the first image of villain Bane. Trailers were attached to the final “Harry Potter” film and “The Avengers,” and fans have been deluged with images and clips. Warners has set the U.S. premiere for July 16 in New York, with the European preem in London two days later.

Warners isn’t pretending that the latest Batman pic is an “Avengers”-style superhero romp; indeed, “The Dark Knight Rises” is being marketed as the final chapter in Nolan’s trilogy — and looks as serious as a heart attack, with plenty of images of terrorist confrontations in the streets of Gotham and a haggard, incapacitated Bruce Wayne.

“Dark Knight Rises” also has a relatively lengthy running time of about 2 hours, 45 minutes, which limits the number of screenings possible per day. And exchange rates — which benefit U.S. studios when the dollar is weaker vs. foreign currency — have risen 14% since “The Dark Knight” came out.

Batman Begins,” Nolan’s revamp of the franchise in 2005, grossed $205 million in the U.S. and $168 million overseas and performed more in line with the superhero genre of films of the time. The four Batman films prior to “Begins” averaged about $130 million at the foreign box office — with none exceeding $152 million internationally.

While it wasn’t an international juggernaut, “Batman Begins” succeeded at least in redefining the way international auds viewed the Batman character. Well received by critics, the pic overperformed on homevideo, and the franchise picked up serious steam abroad when “The Dark Knight” opened in 2008. In the U.K., the biggest market outisde the U.S. for both films in the series, grosses jumped from $29.7 million for “Begins” to $96 million for “Dark Knight.”

“Dark Knight” caught on everywhere else, too, for an international cume of $469 million, by broadening out to play more like an event film — as opposed to a superhero movie — in many other markets. “Batman Begins” toppped $10 million in four markets. Three years later, “The Dark Knight” topped $20 million in eight markets as the overall foreign gross more than doubled.

The biggest increases in grosses were eye-popping: Germany went from $6.9 million on the first film to $30.5 million on the second, making it the pic’s the third-highest market. South Korea grew 300%, from $6 million to $25.4 million; Australia rose 265% from $12 million to $44 million; Brazil nearly tripled, from $7.3 million to $20.7 million; and several midlevel markets such as Argentina, Austria, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden all topped $5 million.

As with any other studio these days, Warners has to play an increasingly international game. The eight “Harry Potter” films took in the lion’s share of their $7.7 billion in worldwide grosses outside the U.S. with 69%, or $5.3 billion, vs. $2.4 billion domestically.

With international markets providing nearly all the growth in moviegoing in recent years, the foreign factor is crucial both for “The Dark Knight Rises” and Warner releases including big-budget bets such as Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” films, Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” Todd Phillips’ “The Hangover Part III,” Bryan Singer’s “Jack the Giant Killer” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim.”

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